Plant-Based Burgers May Be on the Rise, But Meat Consumption Is Higher Than Ever

October 18, 2019, 12:02 PM UTC

Impossible Burgers. Plant nuggets. Pea-protein sausages.

Alternative “meat” is shifting tastes and building momentum towards a “climate friendly”, low-meat diet, while making the names of a new crop of plant-based food startups and changing the menus of household brands like McDonald’s and KFC.

But don’t be fooled: globally, we are eating more meat than ever before.

In the years from 2013 to 2018, global meat consumption rose by 8%, a gain of nearly 18 million tons, according to a recent presentation by Euromonitor International, a market research firm.

“While environmental, health and ethical motives are driving consumers to cut back on meat in some developed markets, global meat sales are growing, mostly driven by demand in developing nations,” said Tom Rees, industry manager of food and nutrition at Euromonitor.

Thailand, India, and Morocco, for example, are increasingly meat loving countries. But the gains in meat consumption are nearly worldwide, crossing both fresh and processed meat, with clear favorites: China prefers pork, while the rest of the world loves chicken.

Even still, in a handful of countries, largely in Western Europe, meat consumption is edging in the opposite direction, fueled by concerns over climate change and eating healthier.

For example, consumption has fallen—albeit by very small amounts—in both Germany, home of bratwurst and schnitzel, and in France, home of coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon. In both countries, total meat consumption by volume fell by 3% overall from 2015 to 2018, according to Euromonitor data.

That’s a reflection of a worldwide trend: globally, 21% of respondents said they were trying to limit their meat intake, even if shifting to a fully vegetarian or vegan diet remains relatively niche, Euromonitor said.

Reducing meat consumption is a crucial step to fighting climate change, and consumers—particularly in the West—have been urged to reduce their intake by everyone from The Lancet to the U.K.’s commission on climate change, because raising livestock—particularly for beef and lamb—consumes not just outsize land, water and energy, but cows in particular produce huge quantities of methane, a particularly potent greenhouse gas.

The momentum behind “flexitarianism” has fueled powerful business trends this year, including a blockbuster IPO for plant-based meat company Beyond Meat earlier this year, and a fresh raft of meat-alternative startups aiming to develop new products for carnivores who want to cut back. That’s capitalized on what is, more than a turn against meat eating itself, a global trend: concern about climate change.

“Even somewhere like the U.S… where the issue has become so politicized, perhaps more so than any other country, still 47%—just under half [of respondents]—say they are worried about climate change,” said Rees.

But Rees warned that the environmental credentials of plant-based meats are also going to eventually confront another massive consumer trend: the shift towards increasingly unprocessed foods.

“A burger can have one ingredient: ground beef. Meat substitute burgers: some have 20 ingredients, not all recognizable,” he said. “At the moment these products aren’t under massive scrutiny, because they’re sitting under this heath halo . . . they are not meat, therefore they must be considered better and healthier.”

However, that benefit isn’t going to last forever, Rees warned, and brands will eventually come under scrutiny for how processed their products are.

“Those that can’t adapt will face losing that health halo.”

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